A former member of Top Gear speaks out about what it was like working on the popular car show.
Reporter: Alex Clement | Sub-Editor: Ryan Elliott
The Grand Tour is set for our screens via Amazon Prime on November 18, and we just can’t wait.
After the sacking of Jeremy Clarkson due to ‘Steak Gate’ on March 25 2015, his fellow co-stars Richard Hammond and James May decided to follow suit and quit Top Gear.
The new BBC series was introduced with a brand spanking new set of presenters. This included American Friends star Matt LeBlanc and Radio 2 presenter Chris Evans, although after the first series was aired, Evans decided to step down from the show, letting LeBlanc front it.
Top Gear might never be the same again, but with the new series of The Grand Tour on its way, we might not have to wait long until we are submerged into car fights and slapstick comedy from the trio that is Clarkson, Hammond and May.
The new series will be available to all Amazon Prime users, and has been given the green light for 36 episodes. Fasten your seat belts- we’re not entirely sure what we might expect.
Top Gear insider David Lancaster, former director and researcher for the show, speaks to Voice of London about his time there, and what he makes of this new upgrade…
How long did you work on Top Gear for?
DL: I was there for two years.
What was your job like as researcher and director for Top Gear?
DL: It was great fun, very demanding. There was a sense that, at the time, Top Gear was left to do its own thing… which is why they could hire people like Clarkson, Andy Wilman, [executive producer of The Grand Tour] and to a far lesser degree, me. As a researcher I’d come up with ideas for items, look into booking locations, draft scripts for the presenters as well as help out on set with production. As a director, I had more control. I’d talk to Quentin Willson, or Clarkson or James May and we’d agree on the story. It would vary from chipping cars to testing two cars against each other. I tended to come up with more quirky ideas.
My most demanding item was at Brands Hatch and we organised three teams: one from Imperial College, one from Ford’s training centre, and one of local mechanics – to see who could build a kit car the fastest, and do a lap of Brands Hatch. This was one of my biggest shoots that I directed. We had time lapse cameras set up to cover each team. It worked really well, but was a very long shoot, and a 2-3 day edit, due to all the footage we had. I think when broadcast it was a very long item for Top Gear then, maybe 10 -12 minutes.
What kind of relationship did you have with Clarkson when you were both working on the show?
DL: He is almost exactly like he is on screen: funny, sharp, doesn’t mind upsetting people in the car industry, and a brilliant writer. He is also demanding and expects everyone to be as good at their job as he is at his. Which he should. He goes to a core of British males who share his tendency to look at the world and go ‘Oh for God’s sake…’
Do you have any memorable stories from set?
DL: For one shoot, I had to dress as a motorcycle cartoon character called Ogri, who rode an old bike, a Vincent-Norton hybrid. I was the only one who rode bikes and the only bike we could find was in the Forest of Dean. The front wheel locked up as soon as you touched the brakes, and it was snowing. Riding down an icy hill, just a foot or two from the camera car, with a costume on, without any brakes which were safe to use – still haunts me.
If you had the chance now, would you work for Top Gear again? Or try it out at The Grand Tour?
DL: I’m not sure. I think the show needs a year’s break and really fresh re-launch, as Wilman, Clarkson and Gary Hunter [BBC producer] did the last time. Gary doesn’t get much credit, but he allowed the show to take risks, and really move on from its lineage as be seen as a boring car show. Gary was the producer on a later show, Full On Food, which I was script editor on.
How much research did you have to do for just one episode?
DL: As much as I could – TV eats up ideas, and script lines, and factoids, so every line delivered to camera or over dubbed has to be really good. It doesn’t work telling the audience what they can see, or what they know. So it needs more wit and insight than just saying the new Bentley looks great and is really fast. We know that. History, technology, people are all key in researching and writing for factual TV – taking the audience places they didn’t expect to go, or talking about stuff they didn’t know of.
Why did you leave?
DL: I’d been developing a new food magazine, which became EatSoup, and when the major publisher IPC said they would pay me to produce a dummy, and research it, I went with that. It was one of the most difficult decisions in my career – I worked well with the generation who were clearly going to take Top Gear to the next stage, Wilman, Clarkson and May. But EatSoup was the chance to launch a new title, with a major publisher behind it, and even though it lasted just a year, I loved being editor, loved meeting and interviewing chefs and when it folded, I joined the Times. I wouldn’t have got the Times job without launching EatSoup.
Do you think it was fair for Clarkson to get fired from the BBC? And what are your thoughts on the resignation of Hammond and May shortly after?
DL: Not sure. Just glad I wasn’t trying to sort the situation out.
What were your first thoughts on the re-launch of Top Gear with its new presenters Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc?
DL: My first thought was: Noooooo. Take a break. Re-think it and re-imagine it. Doing it in the same studio, with similar stories but different people seemed lazy. The BBC is in a position, a unique one, where it has the time and resources to stand back and develop something new. It blew it.
Do you think that it was right for Chris Evans to step down after just one series? Or has he done this just in time, as ratings were horrifically low?
DL: He did the right thing. It wasn’t working, wasn’t going to work and it was flogging a dead horse with him out front.
With the release of The Grand Tour coming to Amazon Prime on November 18, and with the budget being £160 million, what are your predictions for the show? And will you be watching?
DL: I will certainly watch it. I think it’ll do really well: the four of them [including Andy Wilman] are very sharp and have lots of energy and – still – a thirst for adventure. They also have something to prove – to the audience, and to the BBC. It was time for the old show to have a re-launch, which is what I see The Grand Tour as, just with an even bigger budget, on and behind the screen.